The super-powered seeds Jack’s mother threw out her kitchen window must have been favas. While I can't help but question the wisdom of trading an entire cow for a handful of beans, there is real truth to this tale beyond the giants, golden eggs and beanstalks of unusual size: legumes are a delicious source of protein and can be remarkably easy to grow.
Favas, or broad beans (as they are known in the UK), are the one plant that will always thrive in my garden. They even do well outside of my garden in rocks or sandy soil, wherever I happen to drop some seeds. Fava shoots come up in the dead of January, when nothing else will sprout, and throughout every other month of the year. They grow tenaciously when I forget to water and are resistant to the multitude of pests that invade the yard.
In addition to reliable germination and robust growth, fava beans pack a sturdy nutritional punch. When dried, the seeds are a quarter protein, about half carbohydrate, and contain a bit of fat, amino acids, iron, calcium and decent amounts of vitamins B and A. It isn’t only in Northern California that the beans are such a reliable food source, either. There is record of their cultivation in the Middle East back in 5000 BC and today they are found in all temperate parts of the world. In some areas of Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean favas continue to be a staple protein source for millions of people.
Just a handful or two of fava beans tossed with pasta or simmered in a vegetable ragu can keep a meal light but packed with power. Deborah Madison's beautifully photographed recipe for Spring Garden Hodgepodge in her new book Vegetable Literacy is a great example. Later in the season when the beans become more starchy, Sam Mogannam's Fava Hummus is the perfect thing. Though it can be fun to sit on a sunny porch and shell beans in both spring and summer, getting at all that home-grown protein is a bit labor intensive: the beans have an outer pod and then an inner skin that are not good to eat.
Here is what I do to shell the beans quickly:
1) Grasp the pod with both hands and snap the outer side in half right above the first inner bean seed while squeezing the bean out. Once the bean has dropped into the bowl below, slide hands along the pod to find the next bean, snap, squeeze and repeat, until the pod is empty (left photo).
2) When all the beans have been separated from their pods, drop the pod-less beans into a pot of rapidly boiling water for a minute or two, then drain in a colander and cool in a bowl of ice water (middle photo).
3) Finally, pinch a little tear in the outer skin of each bean and pop the bright green inner legume out (right photo).
Fava beans that are already pod-less and skinless are available frozen or dried from the grocery store, but the difference in flavor between just picked home-grown and store bought (even fresh from the farmers’ market) is so dramatic that I recommend you grow your own. Unless you are making Foul (pronounced "Fool"), in which case the dried variety are exactly what you need.
Foul is a comfort-food made with dried favas that has been eaten for hundreds of years in what are now Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and parts of Africa. Salma Abdelnour introduced me to this delicious dish in her memoir, Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut, which is a wonderful book, especially if you are at all interested in the back story on the war in Syria.
Finally, after all this reading and eating, make sure to save a few of the last beans, so that there is something to throw out the window to start next year’s crop.
Fava Hummus (adapted from Sam Mogannam's Eat Good Food):
The word "hummus" means "chickpeas" in arabic. But I like the way it sounds, even if the translation is a little silly: fava chickpeas. No matter what you call it, this spread is delicious with anything that pairs well with traditional chickpea hummus.
1/3 cup plus 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
1 cup chopped green garlic
3/4 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
3lbs fava beans (1 1/2 cup shelled - if they are fresh, blanche as instructed above in the shelling directions. If frozen, no need to blanche them.)
1/2 cup grated Pecorino Romano (or other dry, salty, sheep’s milk cheese)
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
6 large mint leaves, coarsely chopped
Heat 2 Tablespoons of the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat, add the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook until the onions are soft but not browned. Add the green garlic and thyme and cook until they are wilted, then remove from heat and set aside.
The favas and peas will need to be cooked a tiny bit, unless they have been frozen. Either follow my shelling instructions above, or drop them, after shelling, into boiling water for a minute or two.
After the beans or peas have cooled, put them into the bowl of a food processor. Add the onion mixture, cheese, lemon juice, mint and 1/4 teaspoon salt and pulse briefly to combine. Then pour in the remaining 1/3 cup olive oil and pulse again. If it isn’t creamy enough for you, add more olive oil. Taste and add more salt or lemon juice.
Serve with lots of little toasts and veggies for dipping, and a big hunk of a good soft cheese. This makes an excellent spring birthday party spread and the cheese will satisfy any people like my son, who refuse to eat green food.